Legitimate inference from faith

It appears Mitt Romney has really stepped in it, with a speech so unctuous and contrived that it felt actually smarmy, not to mention a deeply reprehensible attempt to raise a smug sectarian alliance of one-Godly Babbitts against a subversive legion of more- or fewer-Godlies. Even David Brooks is ready to leave him at the station for that speech. More from Mark here.

But what is reasonable to consider regarding a political candidate’s religion? I’m not going to settle this here, even for myself, but I have some thoughts.

I think anyone who would even consider voting for someone because he’s of the same faith, indeed for whom that identity counts for even a little in the balance, is living in the wrong country. Identity politics based on race, sex, or religion is the devil walking among us. I heard a usually reasonable black commentator suggest that blacks had some obligation to vote for Obama a couple of days ago, and couldn’t believe that someone else on the program didn’t call him on it: am I under a duty to even tilt toward Edwards, as the only white male high in the polls? If Mitt is getting “Mormon votes” because he’s a Mormon, the whole LDS operation has some serious work do to among the faithful.

One issue related to religion (maybe not the most important) is about hypocrisy and honesty. I usually start to itch and fidget when people tell me their personal religious views, because they are so often inexpert and unpracticed in doing more than asserting propositions (even I know, from glimpses into the real thing, that theology is a lot more interesting and challenging than reciting a catechism of doctrine), but also because people always say what they want to be heard saying, and this is not always what they believe. Here the operational definition of believe goes to consequential behavior and choices, and I don’t mean to invoke the cheap trick of besmirching someone’s character because of a slip or careless utterance; I mean a general pattern of doing A rather than B that evidences some set of principles, hence predictability.

A hypocrisy, for example, that seems broadly afoot comes up among those who believe a fetus, or even a fertilized but not implanted egg, is a person, a belief usually attributed to a religious doctrine. Why do these folks never seem to put this view on the line by demanding that arranging an abortion have the same legal consequences for a mother as killing a child? If this backoff isn’t dissembling or torturing one’s ‘beliefs’ to match political advantage (promising to imprison or kill women who have abortions would thin the ranks of the anti-abortion vote dramatically), it’s certainly intellectual carelessness.

Hypocrisy isn’t a disqualification for office, of course, especially as it blurs into learning from your constituents what they think they have hired you to do. Whose values, as Mark Moore asks students, do you think you’re entering government to implement? So I’m much less willing to condemn someone for a flip (at least) than the usual oppo spin merchant or gotcha journalist; dragging up an abandoned position from twenty years ago to shame a candidate is just cheap. Would we rather have someone who’s deaf, dumb, blind, and can’t learn? Might as well elect a paper manifesto. But it’s fair to note when candidates seem to use the religious doctrine they cleave to as a stick to beat other people with rather than a guide for themselves. Vengeful, punitive, and hateful Christians, for example, get the soi-disant asterisk in my book.

Being able to learn, including learning about morality and religion, seems to me pretty important, so I’m inclined to infer something about performance in office from how a candidate seems to get knowledge. And how much he seems to have: ignorance is a lot worse than knowledge, just like smart is better than dumb. Reciting catechetical points and historical formulas is one thing; I’m OK with praying from a missal as a means of maintaining a community and tradition. But taking consequential actions dictated by a source not subject to honest and open examination and testing, whose legitimacy is held to lie in supernatural and invisible events, worries me a lot. It’s not having the Mormon elders calling the shots on law and administration that concerns me about Mitt, it’s whether taking on the whole package of Mormon mythology as literal truth indicates something about how he will view science and evidence when decision results depend on how the real world really is, and the same goes for anyone who won’t subject important religious ideas to the entire candlepower of human reason. Actually, putting this or that belief behind a wall of faith in this way strikes me as prima facie evidence that the faith itself is a little wobbly: it’s a sure sign of insecurity and doubt when someone in an argument hides a position from challenge behind personal experience or a relative [“Well, my father taught me that…”] or extra-assertive language.

It also counts, and fairly, to observe a candidate talking balderdash about religion generally. The low point in Romney’s grovel for me was his dishing up the idea that having a religion leads to more morality or more authentic Americanism. The idea that adherents of organized faith are generally better behaved than atheists and doubters is so obviously contradicted by the easily observable facts of life among humans that saying it out loud is simply insulting to voters. A candidate who doesn’t respect citizens will have a tough time getting my vote.

Finally, there’s no point in whitewashing the ugly and absurd tenets that various religions uphold explicitly (now, not centuries or decades ago) in stated official doctrine and/or in widespread practice, and it’s wilful ignorance to pretend that these stains are miraculously evenly parceled out among all faiths. Some religions are just a lot more misogynistic than others, for example, in practice and in teaching both. Candidates who wish to seek votes by proclaiming a confession are absolutely fair game for questions about how they take these elements: if you think it’s important that the Bible is the literal truth, and its imperatives are the word of God, you should be ready to link some of the very scary stuff in it to your administrative practice, to speak intelligently about its internal contradictions, or to admit you actually consider the word of God negotiable and interpretable. I’m entirely ready to vote for a candidate who’s a Moslem on purely secular grounds, but if he campaigns as a Moslem candidate, I want to hear about the testimony of two women being even up with the word of one man, and if I don’t get a good answer, I think it’s fair to impute the teaching of the faith to the adherent.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.